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An Epistle at the apex: Paul and the the Biblical basis of Libertarianism

Posted by nouspraktikon on November 15, 2017

From Turtles to Principles

You have probably heard the story of that old woman who insisted the Earth rested on the back of an enormous turtle.  If queried what the turtle rested on, she would respond, logically enough, “Another turtle.”  However if a persistent questioner asked what, in turn, the second turtle rested upon, she would laugh derisively, “Sonny, it’s turtles all the way down!”

This infinite regress of turtles is akin to the view that many Christian libertarians and constitutionalists share with regard to “the charter of our liberties.”  Now rest assured that I consider this to be the enlightened view with regard to the origin of human rights, that “We are endowed by our creator….” and that the contents of this endowment has not been left to the vague recollection of tacit understandings, but rather, made clear in major historical documents which have spelled out the liberties of free men and women without prevarication or ambiguity.  I applaud my fellow freedom lovers who have embraced the theory that the natural rights made explicit in  human covenants is founded on the will and ways of God.

None the less, it seems to me that there is a gap in the understanding of most libertarians, even among those who profess Christianity in one form or another.  On the one hand, freedom is said to be founded on the basis of a “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  On the other hand, the content of this ethos is held to have been been specified by such major documents as the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution of the United States of America (1787), and the Bill of Rights (1791).  These are sometimes called “founding documents” but in fact they represent the fruits of a tradition, not an origin.  Now what was the immediate inspiration of these documents?   This is well understood and well researched, and we can trace what F.A. Hayek called “the constitution of liberty” back step by step through the Whig Revolution, the English Civil War, the conflict between King John, the great barons and the church, and even into the misty years subsequent to the Norman Conquest.  Each of these epochs left a deposit of law in the form of written covenants, of which the Magna Carta (1215)is only the most famous.

However if we ask, “What is the ultimate (not immediate) origin of the Bill of Rights, etc.” we come up against a situation similar to that infinite regress of turtles which are needed to support the Earth.  All we get is a string of documents which leads back from the Magna Carta to the Norman Conquest and then, for a combination of linguistic and documentary reasons, stops.  Beyond that where do the precedents come from?  On the one hand, there are those who hypothesize a kind of Anglo-Saxon democracy as the matrix from which both political liberty and common law sprang.  On the other, there are those, such as Hayek himself, who wish to tie the British tradition of liberty back to the classical political philosophy of Cicero, Stoicism etc..  Keep in mind that Hayek was an evolutionist, albeit more of concerned with cultural than a biological evolution.

On the other hand there are Christians who state that the series of freedom covenants published in the course of British and American history have their ultimate root in the “Judeo-Christian ethos.”  However the “Judeo-Christian ethos” does not constitute the first item in a series of written documents.  It is indeed a case of “turtles all the way down” where “down” is not the true bottom or rather a quasi-bottom begging for further explanation.  Of course, Christians are in possession of a document which provides them with written warrant for thought and action, and it happens to be called the Bible. Note the irony of the ambiguous “Judeo-Christian ethic” being promoted as a basis of politics and rights theory by the same Christians who would insist on a scriptural warrant for any issues outside of politics.  It would seem that there is a special fear of becoming excessively scriptural when it comes to the Biblical foundations of politics.

And as a matter of fact, this fear is well founded.  For there are at least two deviations into scriptural politics which are likely to have catastrophic results, if indeed they are not outright heretical.  I will give a capsule critique of these theological tendencies before moving on to what I consider the true scriptural basis of politics.

Bad Axioms: The Violent Bear It Away

In our search for the axiomatic we don’t want to endorse the catastrophic!   Humanity is always looking for a principle to predicate its violence upon, a “causus belli” as it were.  Marxism is the best contemporary example, though there be others.  Those sects within the church which have been unknowingly or knowingly coaxed by Marxism into a united front frequently march under the banner of “New Testament Christianity.”  In this context, “New Testament” means up to and excluding the cross.  It is the moral teaching to, and subsequently of, the twelve disciples, led by Peter. I don’t think it is putting too fine a point on this teaching to characterize it as perfectionism and communism.  It was a teaching appropriate to those who were striving after moral purity to separate themselves from an apostate Judaism, along lines similar to John the Baptist, or the Essene community at Qumran.   After the cross these teachings were replaced by the gospel.  Though they remain edifying and historically important narratives, they are not Christianity, at least, they are not the heart of Christianity.

However these teachings, perfectionism and communism, are useful for those who seek to sow confusion among Christians.  The virtue of these principles, for Marxists and other enemies of the cross, is that they don’t work, thus their adoption gives people the impression that Christians are not a church but as a camp of confused idealists. This vast camp of deluded Christians, who are not just those at the fringe of “liberation” theology so-called, but the majority of those within the mainstream denominations, are no doubt earnest in their desire to put their politics on a Biblical basis.  Unfortunately they have wrongly divided scripture, not realizing that, in truth, much of the so-called “New Testament” is in fact a continuation of the Old Testament, that the four evangelical witnesses which we call “gospels” are historical and biographical narratives which are only a preface to the Gospel of Grace proclaimed in the letters of Paul, this latter being the only operative gospel for our age.

At the other extreme from “Liberation theology”, there are genuine Christians who fuse together New and Old Testaments into a single covenant theology.  When this is applied with great rigor, the result is a rigidly legalistic system, such as was classically illustrated by Calvin’s Geneva, or the early Massachusetts Bay colony.  Unlike Marxist-inspired theology this covenant view is not a deception, but an honest error.  None the less, it is an error which has burdened and oppressed people in the past, and is likely to do so in the future, if there is any chance of its adoption.  No, we cannot go back to Moses.  Not that Moses is to be despised, for we are edified by the history of Israel.  But to treat Moses as a living letter of law is a misapplication of scripture, and inimical to the true gospel, just as Paul explained to the church in Galatia.   It is to Paul whom we must now turn.

The Pauline Basis of Christian Libertarianism

The way to make progress in ethics is through more geometrico, the much abused and needlessly feared geometrical method.  That is, in morals we ought to start with an axiom and end up with a body of legislation.  What we are offered today is, by and large, the reverse, since we begin with one or another collection of precepts in bad need of simplification and adaptation.  The precepts might alternatively be “the Judeo-Christian ethic” or New Testament theology, or the Mosaic code.  In all such systems the starting point is vague, complicated, and casuistic.  Now, reasoning out cases (casuistry) is a good and very necessary thing, but it should come at the end of a process of deduction, not at the beginning.

Fortunately, scripture is true to its word and provides us with the axioms necessary, not just for our salvation, but for organizing our societies.  The tendency towards axiomatic thinking is evident even in the pre-resurrection teachings of the Savior.  Christ’s willingness to group the precepts of the law into a hierarchy, with the law of love at the apex, contrasts sharply with the predominant rabbinical teachings on the law.  According to the rabbis each of the precepts stood on its own merit, without need of justification by any higher principle.  Conversely, a constant theme of Christ’s teaching was to point out how these independent precepts, if taken literally, would lead to rote behavior drained of empathy for one’s fellow creatures.  This early teaching to the disciples, as noted above, was not Christ’s authoritative message  to the church, which would commence on the road to Emmaus  and climax on the road to Damascus.  However the former teaching was prophetic in the broadest sense, not as prognostication but as propaedieutic, i.e., a kind of introduction.  It was hinting that Christian ethics, unlike rabbinical tradition, would be fundamentally axiomatic rather than casuistic.

The Apostle Paul is the primary revelator and redactor of church truth.  If we search his letters we are sure to find, among many other treasures, the key axiom upon which the organization of a godly society depends.  This axiom is found in a few verses within the most controversial and difficult chapters in the entire Bible, the 13th chapter of the book of Romans.  Now I realize that the very mention of Romans 13 is enough to cause alarm among Christian libertarians, and it is true that this is a portion of scripture which has been notoriously wrested into a shape cut to the specifications of tyrants.  However this reading, which we may designate as the authoritarian reading of Romans 13, I believe to be profoundly in error.

On the contrary, it is Romans Chapter 13 which, read aright, contains the authoritative formulation of the non-aggression axiom.  I am not aware that this has been previously noted, even by commentators who are generally considered sympathetic to libertarianism.  Generally, commentators are mainly interested in soterological issues, therefore those portions of scripture dealing with civil society, like Romans Chapter 13, are passed over without extended comment, except to note that obedience to legitimate governance is enjoined.  Few have done entire commentaries where the primary focus is on politics, economics, or civil society.  One exception is Dr. Gary North, who has written an Economic Commentary on Romans.  Yet even Dr. North who’s  quasi-libertarian views are well known, veers off from the fundamental moral issues discussed in Romans 13, in order to pursue some rather technical observations on the morality of debt, to the exclusion of other considerations.  His commentary on the heart of Romans 13, which are found in verses 8 through 10, is worth reading, if only to note its extremely narrow approach to the content of the epistle.

“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” John Murray does not think that love is an obligation. Rather, the sense of the passage is this: “Owe no man any thing, only love one another.” “He that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” But what does this mean? Does it mean that dealing with others justly is the way that we should demonstrate our love toward them? Or does it mean that loving them fulfills the law? Which law? Moses’ law? Christ’s law?

Paul says which law: the Mosaic. “For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The summary follows the Septuagint’s translation of Deuteronomy 5:17-21.The final clause is based on Leviticus: “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18). Here is the same theme as the one Paul introduced in the previous chapter: no personal vengeance. Christ used a similar approach in his summary of the Mosaic law. “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 19:16-19).

Love is mandatory, Murray writes. “If love is the fulfillment of the law this means that no law is fulfilled apart from love. . . . It is only through love that we can fulfill the demands of justice.”Murray places the decalogue, and through it, the Mosaic law, at the heart of Paul’s injunction. “This appeal to the decalogue demonstrates the following propositions: (1) the decalogue is of permanent and abiding relevance. (2) It exemplifies the law that love fulfills and is therefore correlative with love. (3) The commandments and their binding obligation do not interfere with the exercise of love; there is no incompatibility. (4) The commandments are the norms in accordance with which love operates.”

The closest that North (here following, rather surprisingly, Murray) gets to the non-aggression axiom is his observation on the prohibition of vengeance.  Murray, North, et al, are wrong to think that Paul is endorsing the Mosaic law, although as covenant theologians we ought not to be surprised that they follow this line.  Rather, Paul is using elements of the decalogue the same way that an artist would use pigments of primary colors to paint an entirely new composition.  Romans 13 vv. 8-10 is not just a rehashing of Moses, rather, it is an entirely new revelation establishing human relations on the firm foundation of the non-aggression axiom.

In order to come to an understanding that Romans 13 is nothing less than the divine promulgation of the non-aggression axiom, it is helpful to divide the chapter into three portions.  I. 13:1-7 on civil governance, II. 13:8-10, the non-aggression axiom, III.13:11-14 provision for the coming of the Lord.  Although most readers of the scriptures read sequentially, which in the case of Romans 13 leads to highlighting the section on civil governance, as if it were the topic paragraph of an essay, an alternative method sometimes used by discerning Bible students is to structure the passage according to its “chiastic” pattern.  According to this method, the key elements in a Bible passage are liable to be found in the center of the reading, with the former and latter verses forming mirror images around a core concept.  Thus in the case of Romans 13, we would have the pattern,

I. 13:1-7 human governance ( duties towards civil magistrates)

               II. 13:8-10 the non-aggression axiom

III. 13:11-14 divine governance (duties in preparation for the return of the Lord)

Note how the non-aggression axiom seems encased like a jewel between present and future worlds, humanity and divinity.  This draws us into the center and substance of the relationship between sovereignty and justice.  Thus the student of scripture is compelled to take a closer look at the key text vv. 8-10, which appears following (in E.W. Bullinger’s translation).

8
Owe no one any thing, if not to love the other : for he that
loveth the other hath fulfilled…law.
9
For this,“Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not
kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,Thou shalt not covet;”
and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, namely,
“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
10
Love worketh no evil to his  neighbour: therefore love
is…fulfillment of…law.
Although Paul is doing something more than simply reiterating the Mosaic revelation, the selection of Mosaic elements through which the new message is expressed is very precise and gives us the key to the new law.  Note that only those elements of the decalogue which prohibit aggression are listed.  To be sure, the decalogue also requires positive obligations such as honoring parents, but the empahsis here is on prohibitions not obligations.  Specifically, these are commandments which prohibit the violation of the rights of others.  One might quibble at the inclusion of the tenth commandment against envy, in so far as this is a psychological state and not an active violation of someone’s rights.  However this list is not a bill of particulars, but the anatomy of aggression in general, and psychological realism informs us that envy is the primary motive force for the violation of personal and property rights. What we have in vv. 8-10 is in reality a type of equation, and a very exact equation at that, such that…
Decalogue 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10=the Law of Love
Everybody who knows even the first thing about Christianity has heard about the “law of love”…in the formula “love thy neighbor etc.” the problem is to define what love really means in this context.  This is what the central passages of Romans 13 reveals to us.  Again, substituting one side of the equation,
Do not (6,7,8,9) violate your neighbor’s rights, in fact (10) don’t even think about it!=the Law of Love
or if we phrase it in terms of political theory
The Non-Aggression Axiom=the Law of Love
This formulation will startle many people on the grounds that “love” in this context seems to be divorced from passion, and typically we think of love as a passion.  However, when we are trying to approach revelation on its own terms we are not obligated to define its words according to our own preconceptions and feelings, rather we have to let context determine exegesis.
From Paul to Locke
Skeptics will claim that I am reading the Lockean theory of natural rights back into Paul.  On the contrary, I suggest that John Locke, writing at the turn of the 17th and 18th century may have got his inspiration, not just from Christianity in a general way, but from a study of Paul’s first century epistles.  We know that Locke was a close student of scripture, and of Paul in particular.  To be sure,  Locke has always been problematic for Christian orthodoxy, which is why he was received into the cannon of the West as a philosopher, not a theologian.  However here we are speaking of the divine promulgation of rights theory, and its meaning for our own times, not the question of what  John Locke as a believer thought of the Trinity, or the non-Jurors, or the Book of Common prayer.
From John Locke the tradition of natural rights flowed on to the Whig radicals, on to the writers of the American founding documents, on to the abolitionists and other social movements of the 19th century, on to the populists of the American guilded age, on to the Old Right and non-interventionism, on to those movements which today call themselves libertarian.  However this Whig/Classical Liberal/Libertarian thinking has manifested as more than bare ideas, it has been written into covenants which have rendered rights explicit and binding.  To be sure, the non-aggression axiom has passed through non-Christian, even anti-Christian minds, notably Herbert Spencer, who is always mentioned in that regard.  But this does nothing to mitigate against the possibility, to my mind the virtual certainty, that the non-aggression axiom is ultimately a thing of divine institution.  Need we, like overzealous Donatists, fear that the sacrament of liberty has been defiled because it has passed through unclean hands?  Certainly not!  None the less, at the level of documentary tradition, what  a wonderful thing it would be if we could be sure that there was an unbroken chain of binding covenants, beginning with Paul’s writings and continuing down to the Bill of Rights and beyond.  Indeed, how enlightening it ought to be, for anyone to grasp that the non-aggression principle and the law of love were two but aspects of the same divine axiom.
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Welcome to the Gnostic Nightmare: Blade Runner 2049

Posted by nouspraktikon on November 3, 2017

[Warning: The following review essay contains plot and character spoilers of the movies Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049.  Read at your own discretion.]

Blade Runner 2049 as Symbol, not Prophecy

While I’m not sure I would recommend it to the impressionable, if, like me, you are a fan of the original Blade Runner, evading the sequel is simply not an option.  There is a seamless esthetic continuity from the earlier to the latter film which shows a deft cinematic hand at work, and makes it a shoe-in for us nostalgic devotees of classic sci-fi.  To be sure, the original film’s semi-comical portrayal of California-style corruption, cultural fragmentation, and class polarization has shifted further towards pure negativity, as fits a future world enduring steady economic and ecological degeneration, a world in which anyone who can afford the ticket moves off world.  Thus, before we continue, I’ll remind you that your best bet, if you want a good night’s sleep and pleasant dreams, is to avoid dystopian films altogether.  Still, for reasons soon explained, Blade Runner 2049 might just be worth the grief.

In what should have been an embarrassment, the original 1983 movie, set in the year 2019, is already short of its prophetic mark.  There are, as yet, no off worlds for the rich and famous to escape to, though surely they are chomping at the bit and ready to pack.  There are no “replicants” cloned quasi-humans serving in our military or walking our entertainment districts.  Neither are there any “blade runner” police units designed to track down rogue replicants and liquidate those who fail an “empathy test.”  None of this has caused the least concern to the producers of the 2017 sequel.  Rather, the pseudo-history and narratives of the original, now a classic, have been respected and embellished upon.

Everybody will accept this without qualm.  This will probably be attributed to the loyalty and fanaticism of Blade Runner fans, who, like Star Wars fans, are held liable to take anything that can be dished out.  Yet in reality, prophetic accuracy has little to do with the appeal of Blade Runner.  Rather, it portrays in excruciating detail a deeply symbolic, deeply religious, and deeply heretical understanding of the world in which we live, a world-view who’s articulation is is more significant than the prognostication of specific future events.  If we want to understand Blade Runner, it behooves us to take a close look at the world-view underpinning its narrative.

Cinematic Gnosticism

Under today’s conditions of political correctness, Hollywood is not ready to churn out many films based on an orthodox Christian world-view.  The closest we are liable to get are scripts based on a near-Christian belief system called “Gnosticism.”  Now I know that some Christians will rail at this heresy and boycott anything that smacks of deviation from Biblical truth.  However, given the importance of the cinema, I think we should be grateful for any opportunity which provokes thought on Christian themes, even if they are packaged in heretical garb.  For example, the recent rendition of Noah was chock full of embelishments from both Gnosticism and Jewish folklore, but for someone who had never considered the moral issues which might have provoked a universal flood, it was an edifying view.

One thing that we can be certain of, and that is that the narrative basis of the Blade Runner saga was not concocted by someone hypocritically “playing with religion.”  Rather, Philip K. Dick, who’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep provided the (loosely followed) basis for the films, took his Gnosticism very seriously, to the point where he disavowed originality in certain of his works, claiming to be inspired by trans-human personalities.  And while I don’t know the spiritual views of the present films director, Riddly-Scott, who directed the original and advised the sequel, has had more than a dalliance with gnosticism.  So does this make Blade Runner toxic for the orthodox Christian or a tool for greater discernment?  Obviously I am touting the latter view, but this obligates us to take up the major themes of the movie, point by point, examining the gnostic doctrines embedded in the story and offering the orthodox alternative.

Three points of Gnostic doctrine in Blade Runner 2049: Their salience and their falsity.

There are, at least, three characteristic Gnostic doctrines which underlie the narrative of Blade Runner 2049: 1) the moral superiority of the immaterial over the material, 2) the primacy of deep time over creation, and 3) the level playing field between the forces of good and evil.  Keep in mind that “gnostic” is just a category that modern scholars use to lump together a variety of religious movements, ancient and modern.  One shouldn’t make too much of the word “gnostic” in itself, since it is simply a Greek word pertaining to knowledge.  This doesn’t mean that heretics are smart and real Christians are supposed to be stupid.  The Apostle Paul used the word “epignosis” or “full knowledge” to express the ideal condition of the believer.  The Gnostic heretics (with a capital G) were, in contrast to Paul’s admonitions, advocates of knowledge which was either one-sided, elitist, or imperfect.  There are an abundance of scholarly resources for anyone who wants to pursue the history of Gnosticism, but for us non-specialists the Blade Runner corpus (one novel and two movies) provides an entertaining and cautionary excursion into the Gnostic world-view.

Point One: Sweet Nothings

Since Blade Runner is an amalgam of the detective fiction and the science fiction genres, from the start we enter a world of hardened, embittered characters who’s humanity is questionable, whether or not they have been synthesized in the laboratory or born from the womb.  It is this narrow, metallic, key-hole into the future which gives the series its dystopian flair.  None of the characters are particularly empathetic, and even Dekard (Harrison Ford) only engages our attention due to his dogged professional integrity.  Such, to be sure, is the stuff of hard boiled detective fiction, but Blade Runner carries the theme to ironic heights, since its central mechanism is the bullying, intrusive and literally dehumanizing “empathy test” which operates as a psychological sieve to separate natural humans from rogue replicants.

If you have seen the original movie you know how this works out.  The sequel provides some unexpected relief, presenting us with a character who seems genuinely empathetic and likable, moreover one who is exempt from tests, since her status is beyond dispute.  Her name is Joi, and she is neither a human being nor a replicant but an artificial intelligence, initially embedded in the circuitry of her master’s (Agent K’s) apartment, but early in the story liberated into a portable unit which enables her to accompany K’s misadventures in the physical world.  K is a melancholy “tame” replicant who has been assigned blade runner duty for the Los Angeles police.  It is Joi who is instrumental in fostering a sense of self-esteem in K, and indeed introducing him to the notion that he is more human than the humans.

The introduction of Joi as a major character changes and deepens the previous Blade Runner narrative, albeit in a direction which would no doubt have earned the approval of Phillip K. Dick himself.  It also tips the hand of the storyteller (or storytellers) and reveals an important Gnostic premise behind the drama.  With the introduction of Joi, the replicants are no longer the alien “others” who negatively define humanity.  Rather, in the sequel, replicants and humans emerge as rival tribes of corporal beings, separated only by mode of creation/procreation and by class subordination.  It is Joi who is the true alien, and in welcome relief, a good alien.  Nor does it hurt, at least from a male (natural or artificial) point of view, that her holographic projection is easy on the eyes, a kind of pixie-in-the-ether who is the perfect Tinkerbell companion for a bad boy.  Whether visible or barely audible (her ring-tone is the overture from Peter and the Wolf) she haunts the screen from beginning to end.  Moreover, hers is a very benevolent haunting.  Or is it?

Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but this is the path along which Gnosticism wishes to lead our minds.  Indeed, it may be the path our minds wish to take, independently of any Gnostic propaganda.  The idea of being independent of material reality, not just for the joy (Joi?) of a painless Nirvana, but as a precondition of moral superiority, is perilously attractive.  Furthermore, the idea that only a disembodied, ethereal being could be perfectly selfless, perfectly altruistic, has a certain inescapable logic to it.  Unfortunately, such ideas imply the complementary notion that material existence is the source of all evil.  To be sure, neither species of corporial being, human or replicant, come off very well in Blade Runner 2049.  Some might dispute this, on the grounds of the revolutionary claptrap spouted by the replicant resistance, but I find it hard to believe that the replicant utopia would be much of an improvement on the tyrannical human status quo.  In short, the narrative forces one into an attitude of pessimism for the future of corporal beings in general.  That, my friends, is pure Gnosticism.

If it were not for revelation, and doctrines such as creation and the incarnation, reasoning heads would be hard put to refute the moral superiority of immaterial being.  Yet even in the movie, we can see the insubstantial (pun intended) quality of the Gnostic thesis.  By the end of the movie, K is confronted with a giant, pornographic advertisement in Joi’s image, and it seems to dawn on him that the lure of immaterial love is an illusion.  Literally, a sweet nothing!

Point Two: The Great Creation Hijack

Although the Blade Runner formula may be described as two parts science fiction and one part detective mystery, none the less, we need to add a generous dash of Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein to season the brew.  The story’s import hinges on an attitude which must shared by both producers audience, the notion that “something abominable is afoot.”  To be sure, this sense of abomination would have been more clearly defined in 1983 than in 2017, but it persists.  We can’t just dismiss this feeling as revulsion to the phenomenon of artificial life, sometimes called the “uncanny valley” effect, or the chagrin that one feels when one has been “faked out” by an AI bot posing as a human.  Rather, it involves serious questions about human origins, questions which would arise even if the issue of artificial life were moot.

The loathsome Mr. Wallace, heir to Mr. Tyrell as CEO of the human-manufacturing cartel, is also heir to Tyrell’s role as villain.  Just as Tyrell is less sympathetic than the original Dr. Frankenstein, Wallace is everything evil in Tyrell raised to the umpteenth power.  From a Christian point of view we could say that Wallace is a cinematic representation of Satan.  However, keeping in mind that Blade Runner is a work of Gnostic fiction, there are quite a few mythic details to fill in, keeping in mind that in Gnosticism the character and roles of God and Satan are frequently transposed.  Without too much overstatement, we might say that in Gnosticism it is Satan (or a God very much like Satan) who has created the world, and the good God (the Christ-God) who has rebelled against him.

Satan or not, Wallace is assuredly the blind Gnostic creator-god.  This has nothing to do, except symbolically, with the absence of eyes in his head, since Wallace has enhanced himself with visual sensors far surpassing the optical acuity of average humans.  As the paragon of entrepreneurship Wallace is a creative visionary, yet his vision does not extend to omniscience nor does he have the power to thwart the designs of those who have either retained (Dekard) or discovered (Agent K) their faculty of free will.  It is his blindness towards the outcomes of the future, and the associated impotence, which enrages Wallace, and he is apt to take out his frustrations in murderous retribution against his own creations.

Yet, even given the certitude that Wallace represents the principle of evil, the question of why, and indeed whether, the replicants are an abomination remains paramount.   We can’t grapple with this issue without taking a side glance at the problems of creation and evolution.  However rather than taking sides in an empirical dispute among natural scientific theories, let’s look at how each theory, assuming it were true, would effect the question of property rights, and specifically property rights as related to humans.  This is the ethical dilemma which Blade Runner is forcing us to confront.  It is not that we are dealing with Frankenstein monsters, but rather property rights over human beings, which to modern sensibilities is a more abominable condition than mere monstrosity.

Let us begin with the assumption that to make something is to own it.  Some might dispute this premise, which was popularized by (not invented by) John Locke.  Whatever you may think about it, this premise is a powerful assumption without which it is almost impossible to frame inquiries into the origin of rights.  Now to a secular thinker the question “Who owns the universe?” would be dismissed as nonsensical.  A theist who is not a creationist, might very well consider the question, but answer “nobody” since his god and the universe might exist co-eternally.  However a consistent creationist, one who acknowledged what we call (for purposes of convenience) the Lockean principle, would have to admit that God owns the universe.  This is, to unredeemed  human beings, a terribly offensive statement, for it implies that, as creatures, we are owned by God.

Secularists, unless they are mad, understand that they are not the authors of their own existence. Rather, they ascribe their existence to procreation (sexual generation) and quite logically, extend the chain of procreation backward, effectively, towards infinity.  Thus, at least to the satisfaction of their own mind, they are able to elude the tyranny of a God who has made them and owns rights over them.  However they are not able to elude the principle of maker-rights, and in this case it is the rights of parents over children.  Modernists were not the  first to recognize and, quite rightly, condemn the abuses which once accompanied the practices of the patriarchal (and in some cases the matriarchal) principle, for in pagan society this amounted to the rights of life and death over one’s offspring.  Modernity, which has engendered idolatry of a contrary ilk, has simply plagerized the Hebrew prophets’ diatribes against the child-devouring Molochs of antiquity.

In contrast, those who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob affirm the creation of an initial pair of humans followed by an open ended sequence of generations which multiply through procreation.  As illustrated by the story of the Binding of Isaac (which in Jewish traditon is called the Akedah) , God, not Abraham, has the ultimate power over Isaac’s life, but significantly, he did not use that power.  Thus freedom, according to Judeo-Christian faith, is a space created by the dual authority of two principles and two processes: Natural and human law,  creation and procreation.

However in the modern period, scientific utopians, jealous of God and inspired by the old golem myths of the kabbalists (Jewish Gnosticism) began to dream of the manufacture of artificial life, intelligent or otherwise.  This reverses the formula of the Bible, so that procreation, rather than succeeding creation, proceeds it.  The original Blade Runner gives artistic expression to this latter world-view, treating the theme with enough cynicism to render it dystopian.  Finally, Blade Runner 2049 comes full circle with the sequence procreation–>creation–>procreation.

This is a creationism of a Gnostic stripe, a blind manufacting  set within the infinite time of a self-existent universe, a universe which provides working materials, but no blueprint for ethics.  It should be evident that this is a formula for slavery rather than freedom.  As dramatized by Blade Runner 2049, the creation of artificial humanity leads is portrayed as a tragic and barbaric act because Wallace is only a creating creature, not the uncreated Creator.  He is the maker, or what the original Gnostics called the “demiurgos.”  His ownership of his creatures is, in some sense, legitimate, yet it will tend in the direction of tyranny since, as inhabitants of the same time-space continuum, creator and creatures are related to one another in such a way that their self-interest is likely to come into conflict.  Unlike God in the Sacrifice of Isaac, Wallace will not stay the knife.

Point Three: The Level Playing Field

Gnosticism shares a principle in common with detective fiction, the principle of suspense.  This is good storytelling but bad theology.  The Bible, for all it excellent qualities, is not a book of suspense.  We can study the Scriptures in terms of its final purposes, from Revelation back to Genesis, or, as is more common, in chronological order.  We need not fear offending the Author by reading out of sequence, for unlike Agatha Christie, Philip K. Dick, et al, He is outside of time, and his narrative is a done deal.

Neither Hollywood nor the market for pulp fiction can endure that kind of finality.  That is why, even when Hollywood is trying its level best to speak with a Christian voice, it comes out garbled, and uttered in the idiom of Gnosticism.  Hollywood knows that audiences crave suspense more than they crave the sovereignty of God.  We want to see Dekkard or Agent K racing around in flying cars towards an uncertain destiny.  We will put up with a dissonant soundtrack that sounds like it badly needs a trip to the muffler shop, precisely because it grates on our nerves and puts us “on edge” expecting the next twist of the apocalypse.  Most of all, we don’t want to see the devil completely defeated, because if he is, that means there will be no sequel.

Indeed, Gnosticism has its own “fairness doctrine” in which there is a god of good and a god of evil, and they get to slug it out, perhaps with occasional intermissions and a half-time show.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob looks down from heaven, and he laughs!  What a laugh He must have at fools such as us, if we think that the future of the world is somehow up for grabs.  True, Satan is in some sense the god of society, but God is the author of nature.  In any contest between nature and society there can no doubt as to the outcome.

Still, that doesn’t stop people from trying.  One of the distinctive qualities of the both Blade Runner films is how they picture the near abolition of nature by society and technology.  It is the hyper-urban atmosphere which lends these films their sinister beauty, their portrayal of a world in which even the rural landscapes are nothing more than extended city skylines, factories or wastelands.  None the less, even if the Devil seems to be winning on the level of esthetics, the narrative is forced to bow a knee towards the final victory of the good.  In the end (I warned you about spoilers, right?) the son dies for the father, and the sacrifice seems to clear the way, if not for the ultimate victory of good over evil, at least for a sequel to the sequel.  All in all, pretty good for a Gnostic flick.  Personally, I would give it a five star rating.

That is, five stars by the standards of this world.  Keep in mind that father Abraham, gazing at the sky, counted a lot more than five.

 

 

 

 

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